January 12, 2023

The Moods and Errors of an Age

By: Rodney Rios

In our times, it is a mood of our age amongst some to believe that American democracy and society are so decayed that only radical measures are necessary to save the country. There is also debate over the value of liberal democracy. Some go so far as to believe that the real threat to the world in our times is America and not Russian and Chinese totalitarian aggression. This is not the first time the world has seen its mood turn against freedom and ordered liberty. It is thus necessary to revisit the principles on which American liberty is based and determine if it’s worth defending. What are the roots and values of American Liberty?

Albert Einstein once said that one of the strangest things about the universe is that it makes sense. This is because truths, rhyme, and reason exist in the universe. Contrary to popular modern beliefs, there is a Natural Law out there that human beings have been trying to decipher and understand for ages.

As has been discussed, the basis of a political system is people. A legitimate political system is based, in theory, on respecting the dignity and value of the individual person. This was not always well known. Before Christianity, as the historian Tom Holland explained, the world of the Ancients was cruel, and the dignity of the human person was not really recognized. As Holland mentions,

The more you live in the minds of the Romans, and I think even more the Greeks, the more alien they come to seem, the more frightening they come to seem. […] This is a really terrifying alien world and the more you look at it, the more you realize that it is built on systematic exploitation… In almost every way, this is a world that is unspeakably cruel.

Then the Light came into the world and defeated the darkness on the Cross. The result of Christ establishing His Church was explained by G.K. Chesterton, “Christianity had entered the world to cure the world, and she cured it the only way in which it could be cured; that is, in its conversion to Christianity.” Slowly the rise of Christianity brought a revolution in the world. In the words of St. John Henry Newman, Christianity gradually began to restore the world. In other words, Christianity brought ethical and moral truths back into our fallen world, which we in the West know, or used to know, are universal.

That Truth has been attacked since the beginning, as the exchange between Christ and Pilate in the Gospel of St. John shows. To Christ’s claim of being the Truth, Pilate cynically asked, “what is truth?” Regardless, Christianity eventually triumphed and built the West. Western Civilization, for that reason, can be called Christendom to this day. The basis of our ethics, morals, and ideas about humanity are, despite our best efforts to extirpate their influence, Christian. Since there is a Natural Law, it flows naturally that this law is applied to various aspects of human existence, such as politics and society.

Thanks to Christian ethics and morality, it is no coincidence that the struggle to find a form of government that best protected human rights occurred in Christian Civilization. Though humans have developed many political systems, the passage of time has demonstrated that the best form of government to protect individual rights and prevent the abuse of power has been representative democracy with a healthy separation of powers. C.S. Lewis argued this when he explained, “The real reason for democracy is […]. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.”

Slowly it was amongst the people in England that the ideas of ordered liberty and representative government evolved and improved from antiquity thanks to Christian ethics. Slowly constitutional, consensual government developed. As Daniel Hannan demonstrates, in the English-speaking world, there grew a culture that sought to avoid arbitrary power and respect individual rights. With time, that culture spread throughout many nations. It produced Magna Carta, the English and American Bill of Rights, the American Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution.

In short, the English-Speaking peoples developed the notions of ordered liberty which contain free markets, the rights of property, liberty of contract, freedom of worship, separation of powers, due process of law, and the individual rights of persons. In this political culture, the state was not absolute over the person but its servant. This is what Winston Churchill meant when he said, “It is the English-speaking peoples who, almost alone, keep alight the torch of freedom.”

The highest form of these ideas is the American Constitution, which is based on eternal truths stated in the Declaration about the human person, such as his rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those inalienable rights, the Declaration declares, come from God, not the state. How revolutionary that was, and is, in our fallen world. Rights do not come from the powerful but from God, the Creator, and governments should be based on those natural rights. This is the torch that the West, especially the United States, carries today. It is the basis of freedom since it is the basis for a society that seeks the common good.

There is no reason why history had to take the turn it did at Philadelphia in 1787. History could have continued as cruel as in antiquity. It could have continued the path of early modernity which was governed by the powerful and the aristocratic. But it didn’t. A miracle happened in Philadelphia, and the world has never been quite the same again. From then on, the world would slowly alter in favor of government systems based on the human person’s dignity.

American democracy was the first time it was clearly stated in the world that governments are based on the consent of the governed and respect for human rights. It recognized the right of people to alter or abolish their form of government. Based on Christian Truths and principles, it is no wonder these ideas have spread. Perhaps this is what Chesterton meant when he said, “So far as American democracy becomes or remains Catholic and Christian, that democracy will remain democratic. In so far as it does not, it will become wildly and wickedly undemocratic.”

This idea of ordered liberty, of freedom, has been scorned and attacked from the very beginning. Throughout history, societies of every type have succumbed to erroneous moods and passions that fade with time and then leave future generations wondering what exactly happened. In this fashion, the world has seen human sacrifice, absolute monarchy, tyrannies of all sorts, the cult of the supreme being, and many other moods and errors.

More recent evils have been noted by the historian Andrew Roberts as four assaults against freedom: Prussian militarism, Nazism, Soviet Communism, and Islamicist Terrorism. Now there seems to be a fifth assault, Chinese Communist Totalitarianism. All these errors and moods have repeatedly thought in their time that America and the Free World were decaying, weak or beaten. They were all wrong. Time and again, America and the Free World have defeated them.

Regardless, what is to be said to all the adherents of authoritarianism and of the ends justify the means? Many of the skeptics of America, both Left and Right in these times, fail to distinguish what makes America worthy of preservation and why the American way is better than the alternative. The mood of our age is “realist” in such a way that it is more accurately defined as the negation of any Moral Law or ethics in matters of international and domestic politics. It is nonsense to pretend to a wholly amoral view of the world such as the one claimed by the authoritarians. To paraphrase former Secretary of State James Baker, principles require pragmatism, but pragmatism without principles is only cynicism.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once explained that to think well, one must have principles independent of space and time. Permanent things. If you do not have those, you will merely follow the mood of the age, be it Mussolini, Mao, the Sexual Revolution, Libertarianism, Trump, transgenderism, or whichever mood captures the day. That is no way to live or to think. As Fulton Sheen said,

It is always a good thing to remember that if you marry the mood or the spirit of an age, you will be a widow in the next one. These fashions simply do not last, and it is not to be said that if one does not follow each of these fashions that, one is behind the times. No. One is behind the scenes. The theories that were popular years ago will be forgotten in ten or fifteen years.